Bloomberg: Heed Sessions’ warning on campus speech

Campuses should encourage, not oppose, freedom of speech
Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

As a defender of the First Amendment, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has terrible timing.

But he has a legitimate point — and it’s one that shouldn’t be lost on either the U.S.’s college students or his boss, President Donald Trump.

Sessions went to Georgetown University on Tuesday to deliver a robust defense of free speech on college campuses.

He would have had more credibility had he rebuked Trump for his incendiary attack on National Football League players who kneel during the national anthem as an expression of political protest.

Doing so might well have cost Sessions his job, but as one of his predecessors understood, he serves the Constitution, not the president.

However flawed the messenger, Sessions’s speech identified a real and growing problem:

College students and administrators have been displaying a shocking disregard for First Amendment rights.

Recent incidents involving violent protesters and overzealous administrators have made headlines, but they are not isolated cases.

An unwillingness to hear opposing views is getting to be a defining feature of campus culture.

A recent survey of students at four-year colleges and universities uncovered an alarming level of both legal ignorance and political intolerance.

Almost half (44 percent) do not believe that the First Amendment protects hate speech.

A majority thinks that it is acceptable to shout down an objectionable speaker to prevent the audience from listening.

One in five thinks that, to accomplish that objective, violence is justifiable.

Over the long run, these attitudes threaten a bedrock of American freedom.

Respectful and reasoned dialogue is essential in a democratic society, and its survival depends on leaders — inside and outside government — who will vigorously and unflinchingly defend the rights of speakers with unpopular viewpoints.

The rise of intolerance on campus has coincided with the increasing homogeneity of the academic faculty.

In 1995, liberal faculty members outnumbered conservatives by roughly two to one.

Today, it is closer to five to one — and rather than man the barricades, many have joined students in protesting the presence of conservative speakers on campus.

Administrators must shoulder some of the blame, too.

By tolerating and sometimes nurturing a culture in which students feel entitled to protection, through safe spaces and trigger warnings, they are sheltering students from opinions they may find challenging or even disturbing.

These are precisely the ideas that colleges should be exposing them to.

The country’s best hope for countering an increasingly polarized and vitriolic political environment rests with its citizens’ willingness to listen to one another.

This is especially difficult —and especially necessary — when they disagree, even profoundly.

If colleges cannot teach this skill, and impart that value, the threat of censorship and violence will only grow.

More civic leaders from both parties should take up this challenge.

Free speech is an issue that must transcend partisanship.

Michael R. Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP.

Categories: Editorial, Opinion

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